Heidelbasics: Brief Weekly Reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism by Rev. David Fagrey, Pastor of Grace Reformed Church of Rapid City, SD
104. What does God require in the fifth commandment?
That I show all honor, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother, and to all in authority over me, submit myself with due obedience to all their good instruction and correction, and also bear patiently with their infirmities [weaknesses], since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.
The Fifth Commandment, “honor your father and your mother,” is first in the second table of the law, because it is in the home where we begin to learn how to love our neighbor as our self and to submit to all authority in society. The purpose “of this commandment is the preservation of civil order,” and parental authority and government “was the first established among men” (Ursinus, 575). Behind this commandment is the truth that God governs us through various kinds of authority. “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:1-2). The only exception to our obedience to men is if they command us to disobey God, in which case, “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Parental authority is the foundation of all authority. Since God knows the depravity of our hearts, that we submit to authority grudgingly, He starts us off with that submission which is easiest to tolerate, in order to gradually accustom us to submit to all other lawful authority.
The fact that the Bible directs this commandment to children in the church teaches us that God redeems children through faith in Christ from the penalty and bondage of sin, including the sin of dishonoring parents; so that they learn to honor, love, and obey their parents out of thankfulness for salvation. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1). The words, “in the Lord,” mean that this obedience “should be religious; arising out of the conviction that such obedience is the will of the Lord. This makes it a higher service than if rendered from fear or from mere natural affection” (Charles Hodge, on Eph. 6:1).
The basic meaning of the word honor is “weighty, of great value and worth.” To honor our parents is to treat them as carrying a lot of weight, as very valuable and worthy of respect, because it is God’s will to govern us by their hand. Therefore, we “should treat them with honor, obedience, and gratefulness. It follows from this that we are forbidden to detract from their dignity either by contempt, by stubbornness, or by ungratefulness [Matt. 15:4-6]” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.35). On the other hand, “when God requires parents to be honored, He at the same time demands that they so discharge the duties of parents as to be worthy of honor [Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4]” (Ursinus, 576).
Honoring parents also means to bear patiently with their weaknesses, even when they behave dishonorably (Gen. 9:18-23). This does not mean children have to put up with abuse. Parents who abuse their children are breaking the law, and abusing the authority God gave them. Therefore, “if our parents spur us to transgress the law, we have a right to regard them not as parents, but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.38). Abused or abandoned children do not have the right to be bitter or to rage against society. Only the Lord can heal their broken heart and bitterness. “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take care of me” (Psalm 27:10).